The neighbor was painting his trash cans again. While Davis trimmed the hedge between their adjoining yards, he surreptitiously watched him print "Mr. Hirschbaum" and his address in large white brushstrokes, stark against the black plastic.
Davis was new to the neighborhood, but his gossipy neighbor Sharon said it had become tradition for the local teens to swap out Mr. Hirschbaum's waste bins with others. Apparently, old Hirschbaum proved so adept at locating his misplaced property, they upped the ante by spray painting black over his white lettering.
He still managed to identify his personal cans from a myriad of others in the subdivision. So the kids moved them farther away. They had relocated his bins all over Duval County, Florida, and still Hirschbaum returned triumphant.
Or perhaps more livid than triumphant. Davis had heard vibrant cursing the day prior and peered outside to see Hirschbaum hauling his filthy trash cans from truck to garden hose, accompanied by his equally dirty dog. Man, dog, and cans looked like they had been submerged in a swamp - probably the one behind the neighborhood. It seemed the local kids were getting creative.
How Hirschbaum found his bins was a mystery that engaged the bored minds and wagging tongues of many a nosy neighbor. When Sharon had pressed for the secret of his location skills, he had claimed, "I can see and Lord Byron can smell." ("Lord" Byron actually did carry himself like canine nobility, even when he had resembled a large, bedraggled swamp rat yesterday.)
Sharon had a vested interest in discovering how Hirschbaum did it. She used to repeatedly lose money betting against him. Allegedly anyway, according to yet another overly involved neighbor. Davis reflected that he should start walking to the community mailboxes under cover of darkness to avoid unwanted socialization… Yet he was now interested in the saga despite himself.
Clearing his throat, Davis called, "Mr. Hirschbaum?" The old man looked up from sealing his paint can. "Would you like me to trim your side of the hedge while I'm at it?"
An unnerving several seconds of silence followed, wherein Davis wondered if Hirschbaum had forgotten his hearing aids. "Why?" he finally asked.
"Ah… So the hedge will match on both sides?" Hirschbaum fixed him with a stare welcoming as a cliff face to a storm-driven boat. It hadn't occurred to Davis that his intended friendly overture might be met with resistance, though Sharon had described Hirschbaum as "a difficult man" whose taciturn nature had begun the War of the Bins. The man had committed horrors such as refusing to weed his lawn and forbidding people to park on the curb before his house. "It's also a good arm workout for me," Davis added lamely.
The harsh planes of Hirschbaum's face slightly shifted, as if moved by the idea of smiling. "By all means then," he said. "A young buck like you must maintain a fine physique to attract suitors." Yes, that was definitely amusement in the old man's voice, and Davis laughed too loudly in relief.
Before crossing the property line, he asked, "Is your dog friendly?"
"If I'm fine with you, Lord Byron is fine with you. I've seen you before." This seemed an odd thing to say. They were neighbors: of course Hirschbaum had seen him.
Davis was surprised to hear, "I know," when he introduced himself, but it was a chatty neighborhood. Even now, he could see Sharon spying on their interaction from her window across the street. He resolved not to get his mail until after 10:00 P.M.
When old Hirschbaum commanded, "Call me Allen," he was further surprised. But being on a first-name basis with him would be less of a mouthful.
As Davis started trimming, he awkwardly tried it out. "So... Allen - what kind of dog is Lord Byron?"
"Rough Collie," Allen said tersely, heading inside with his ever-present dog at his heels. Davis was impressed by the pair's synchrony, particularly since he had never once seen the dog on a leash.
"I haven't heard of that breed," Davis commented.
Allen actually stopped in his tracks to cast an offended look over his shoulder. "What about a Lassie dog?" he asked.
Sensing he'd gone wrong, Davis said pleasantly, "Nope, haven't heard of that one either."
"They're the same kind of dog!" Allen nearly shouted. "Lassie, the canine icon? The TV show, the books? Not ringing any bells?"
Perhaps a far-off bell was vaguely ringing, for there was something familiar about Lord Byron… But Davis shook his head. "I'm an ignoramus when it comes to dogs, sir. My father has terrible allergies, so I couldn't have a dog growing up. Now I'm renting my own place and working from home, so I'm thinking about getting one. I'd be happy to walk Lord Byron or even dogsit if you ever need me to," he said in a rush.
Allen scowled at him. "I'm supposed to hand off Byron to YOU?" he said with a tinge of disgust. Then, "Very well. You start tomorrow. Will you be giving him his morning or evening walk?"
Davis blinked, feeling like a startled toad in a flashlight beam. "Uh, evening I guess? That's when I walk to the mailboxes."
Allen nodded. "No walks before sunset - it's too hot for him. Come to the front door when you're ready. We'll begin grooming lessons this week."
This was too much. If Davis got a dog, it would probably be smaller and non-shedding. And he certainly would not be grooming it himself! But before Davis could object, Allen and Byron went inside. And Davis found himself standing on their front stoop the next night.
His evenings soon settled into a comfortable routine, and he was happy to have a share in Byron. He even looked forward to the grooming sessions as bonding opportunities.
Davis thought it slightly disturbing yet amusing when Allen said his wife had used the undercoat of their previous Collies to make "wool." When Allen showed him the various sweaters, hats, and scarves she had made, he stopped being disturbed. Davis marveled at the softness of the fibers and the softness on Allen's face when he spoke of her. Clearly, he must have been a different man when his wife was still around.
After several months of happy association, Allen finally took Davis up on his dogsitting offer. He was a bit cagey about how long he would be gone, which Davis figured meant - at least a week? Nor would Allen disclose details about where he was going, other than to say, "It's been too long since I saw my family."
The night before he was scheduled to leave, Allen had Davis visit again. Knowing the old man was anxious about leaving his beloved dog, Davis humored him. He also got his first tour of the entire house and learned that Allen had designed it.
Allen seemed particularly proud of the fireplace. "I built it myself," he said, patting it nearly as fondly as he did Lord Byron. "Laid it by hand - brick by brick." He transferred his intense gaze to Davis.
"It's a very nice fireplace, sir," Davis said dutifully.
"I've left instructions for Byron's care," Allen said, walking to the kitchen counter and picking up a small black notebook. "If you have questions, you'll find the answers in here - plus something extra if you have eyes to see."
The old man's being extra spooky today, thought Davis. Aloud he said, "Sounds like you're expecting to be pretty far out of cell service."
Allen smiled, "Yes, I plan to really get away from it all."
Early the next morning, Davis was awakened by the sound of heartbreak. The wrenching howling had to be Byron, and it froze something in Davis's soul. Stumbling next door in his bathrobe, he knocked, then pounded on the door. No answer. He used the spare house key he had been given to let himself in with shaking hands.
Finding Allen unresponsive in his bed and Byron wailing his heartache to the heavens beside him, Davis sank to the floor and called 911. When paramedics arrived, he had to forcibly drag a snarling, inconsolable Byron away from his master.
After they left, not knowing what else to do, Davis picked up Allen's little notebook. The black cover read "Lord Byron" in white lettering, and Davis smiled through tears to think of the trash cans that had first inclined him to befriend the cranky old codger. Page one was feeding instructions, but he needed to know what to do for emotional distress. The next few pages, in excruciating detail, were devoted to Byron's walking and grooming routines.
But the last page was... odd. "Please keep Byron in this house, in familiar surroundings. See my handcrafted creation with his symbol for further instruction. I leave you love letters I wrote but never mailed. They have value to me and will to you also if you have eyes to see." Well, the whole house was Allen's "handcrafted creation." But the fireplace… Had Allen acted stranger than usual about the fireplace?
Davis inspected it, peering at the side section Allen had patted. Then he saw it - the outline of a Collie head faintly scratched into a brick. That brick and a few surrounding ones were loose, so he removed them. The concealed compartment within revealed a box containing a packet of letters, with the top one addressed to him.
You have been like a son to me in these last months of my life. Thank you for reminding me how it felt to have family again. My wife and son died in a car crash years ago, and I wrote to them on the anniversaries of their deaths. Perhaps you would do me the honor of reading these letters, to keep their memories alive a while longer. Use your eyes to see the unsent.
I leave my original will with you, as I fear the copy I left with my lawyer may have been tampered with through the bribery of distant relatives who covet my assets. Byron is yours, my house is yours, and the letters with their riches are yours. Please forgive an old man his secrecy and paranoia; I wanted to be sure that my possessions would go to you, or at least not fall into the hands of my unloving relatives. I knew they could not be bothered to care for a dog.
My apologies in advance for the "horrible Hirschbaums," as my wife called them. I'm afraid I became a horrible Hirschbaum again until I met you.
The will was there beneath the letters - clairvoyantly dated a year before Davis had moved into the neighborhood. Spooky old man, Davis thought fondly. Then he cried helplessly with Byron, too wrecked to process everything.
Days later, the horrible Hirschbaums showed up. They demanded to know who Davis was, why he was squatting in their house, and why Allen's bank accounts were empty. He showed them the will. They attempted to snatch it from his hands and vehemently promised legal action. Byron lunged at them with deep, warning barks, and they vacated the premises while threatening to have "that dangerous dog put down."
Davis did not have the money for legal fees. Seeking comfort, he finally began reading Allen's other letters. Then a realization dawned. The envelopes had postage stamps! Why?
He was no judge of such things, but the stamps looked far older than the years in which Allen had written the letters. Davis was unsure when stamps had last been so cheap, but he knew it was not anytime recent.
An Internet search showed that he was holding at least $20,000 in his hands. The relatives might take the house, but they were unaware of the letters and their valuable stamps. And now he had the means to fight back.
He ruffled his dog's ears. "Lord Byron," he told him, "we're going to be alright."